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Release The Stats!

Harvard should increase transparency of sexual assault statistics

By Madeleine M. Schwartz

Where do sexual assaults happen on campus? It turns out this question is difficult to answer because the University is selective about what information it makes public.

Harvard is obligated by law to release certain statistics. According to the Clery Act of 1990, universities that receive federal funding are required to release a certain amount of information about the crimes that occur on their campuses. This takes the form of an annual security report, crime logs, and timely warnings. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, currently in Congress, would increase this requirement by making colleges release domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking statistics along with sexual assaults in annual reports.

Beyond this, however, the University is mostly quiet about sexual assault on campus. When the group Students for Safe Space, who campaigned last year for sexual assault statistics to be made public, asked the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response to release the data they had about the percentage of reported assaults that took place in final clubs, they were told no after a series of exchanges.  This answer came about not simply on account of reliability of statistics, but because administrators had expressed concerns about how the release of such statistics might distract from the underlying issues of sexual assault. There was a statistical concern, a student involved told me: The University did not have precise enough data to bring forward. But the administration rejected the idea that they might solve the statistical problem by collecting more data and releasing it publicly.

In all follow-up correspondence on the question of data, the University has pleaded lack of information. When I asked about the data for a previous piece on final clubs, I was told that precise breakdown of data beyond the number of assaults that occurred on and off-campus was incomplete and therefore unusable. When I mentioned the experience of Students for Safe Space, I received a long press statement from Jeff Neal, publicist for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, about how much Harvard cares about assault and how little it knows about the circumstances (reprinted in part below).

“Harvard cares deeply about the safety and well-being of our students, and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) offers support and assistance to all students who come to us for help.

“While we do collect some information about the location of the incidents that are reported to OSAPR, that information is incomplete and thus cannot provide an accurate picture of any campus trends.

“Indeed, sexual assaults happen everywhere—on campus, off campus, and when students travel.  Statistics from recent years indicate that assaults occur on and off campus at a generally similar rate, although, according to our data, the risk is significantly increased in locations where alcohol is present in high quantities, and assaults are often linked to alcohol consumption...It is important for students to understand the kinds of risks that are posed in the college environment and at OSAPR we urge all members of our community to stay vigilant and to look out for each other so that we as a community can work together to reduce these risks.”

Even within this disavowal of data, it seems that the University knows more than it lets on. While Neal said that the information collected by OSAPR, which is culled “directly” from individuals who reach out to the office, “is incomplete and thus cannot provide an accurate picture of any campus trends,” it has been sufficient for the school to draw conclusions. For one, Harvard seems to have a general sense of where assaults occur: “Statistics from recent years indicate that assaults occur on and off campus at a generally similar rate.” And the University has drawn inferences about what this supposedly trendless data indicates: “According to our data, the risk is significantly increased in locations where alcohol is present in high quantities, and assaults are often linked to alcohol consumption.” Such assumptions about the circumstances accompanying sexual assault could not be made unless the University was consciously accumulating data about the nature of assaults on campus.

The University does provide many resources for Harvard students—a 24-hour hotline and support are undoubtedly necessary at a college where, according to national statistics, up to one in five women may become victims of sexual assault. But the University cannot maximally protect the safety of its students so long as it is selective about what information to withhold and what to make public. A complete preventative program must include data about where assaults occur as part of a full picture of assault on campus—one that would give students a complete understanding of campus safety. The University states, “the mission of OSAPR is to promote the compassionate and just treatment of student survivors, their friends, and significant others and to foster collaborative relationships between campus and community systems and affect attitudinal and behavioral changes on campus as we work toward the elimination of sexual violence against all people.” This mission cannot be fully realized until the University gives each student crucial information about the circumstances under which assault happens. Harvard should collect and release any information about sexual assault that will help students equip themselves against it.

Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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